Feed on

They served themselves, stirring the rice with their forks, squinting as they extracted bay leaves and cloves from the stew. Every few minutes Shukumar lit a few more birthday candles and drove them into the soil of the pot. (Lahiri 621)

When we think of candlelit dinners, we normally think of romance, of the beginnings of a relationship. In a way, this is exactly what this dinner scene between Shoba and Shukumar is. Since the death of their son, they have become estranged. They no longer know one another as they used to; they are strangers. With this scene, and with the game Shoba proposes that they play, they slowly begin to know one another in new ways, with each one learning things about the other that they didn’t know before:

‘The first time I was alone in your apartment, I looked in your address book to see if you’d written me in. I think we’d known each other two weeks.’

‘Where was I?’

‘You went to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your mother, and I figured it would be a long call. I wanted to know if you’d promoted me from the margins of your newspaper.’ (Lahiri 623)

Shukumar is also able to suddenly recognize things about Shoba that he has forgotten, that he has stopped noticing since the tragedy and their reduced interactions with one another:

The birthday candles had burned out, but he pictured her face clearly in the dark, the wide tilting eyes, the full grape-toned lips; the fall at age two from her high chair still visible as a comma on her chin. Each day, Shukumar noticed, her beauty, which had once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed superfluous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow. (Lahiri 624)

This same trend of rediscovery and discovery continues on for the rest of the story, always occurring during a candlelit meal. The darkness emboldens them somehow; they can speak the truth without having to really face the other as it is spoken—almost as if the darkness is a shield. When the power finally comes back on, they have grown considerably closer after this string of candlelit dinners, but one great secret still remains for each of them. When Shoba makes the decision to tell Shukumar hers with the lights on—“‘I want you to see my face when I tell you this,’ she said gently.” (Lahiri 629)—it is because she has grown brave enough during the preceding days to say what she needs to face-to-face; she feels ready enough after all the truths she has told him so far, confident that he will understand her decision because his understanding of who she really is has only grown deeper over the past several days.

As for Shukumar, the little secrets he has told her thus far—cheating on his college exam, ripping out a picture of a woman from a magazine—are nothing compared to what he reveals to her in the story’s final moments: “‘Our baby was a boy,’ he said. ‘His skin was more red than brown. He had black hair on his head. He weighed almost five pounds. His fingers were curled shut, just like yours in the night.’” (Lahiri 630). It is still somewhat unclear to me why Shukumar chose to finally reveal this knowledge to Shoba. Was he simply unable to live with that guilt any longer, especially since the recent rekindling of their love? Did he think that the knowledge would bring her some kind of comfort or closure? Or, did he simply want her to know him in the purest way possible, free of all lies and secrets, before she possibly ended up leaving him forever? Whatever the reason, it makes for one of the most powerful and provocative endings I have ever read. This is an absolutely brilliant story, one that I know will stay with me for a long time. As gut-wrenching as it was, it was an absolute joy to read for its complex characters, beautiful prose, and heartbreaking final scene.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.